Peter Bowman in Proof of Life

David Morse - Proof of Life

Edmonton Journal December 6, 2000 Wednesday Final Edition Copyright 2000 CanWest Interactive, a division of CanWest Global Communications Corp. All Rights Reserved

Edmonton Journal

December 6, 2000 Wednesday Final Edition

SECTION: Entertainment; Pg. C1 / FRONT

LENGTH: 1072 words

Hazardous side of Life: Danger lurked everywhere during Ecuador film shoot

SOURCE: Southam Newspapers; Southam News

BYLINE: Jamie Portman

DATELINE: Beverly Hills, Calif.

There's a part of David Morse that knows that he shouldn't be sitting here, at an interview table on the second floor of a luxury hotel on this sunny California morning, talking about his new movie Proof Of Life, which opens Friday. In fact, the bottom line is that he shouldn't even be alive.

The subject is really too painful for him to discuss -- but what happened of that ghastly spring day in Ecuador has already been well-documented. Morse was in the midst of shooting a number of key scenes for the film, in which he portrays an American engineer who is kidnapped in an unnamed Latin American country by a gang of thugs and held for a $3-million ransom. He had been working without complaint high in the Andes under miserable conditions. But an urgent family matter required him to return home to the United States for a couple of days, and during his absence his stand-in, Will Gaffney, was to take over. A truck conveying Gaffney to the shooting location went out of control on the mountain road and plunged into a deep ravine. Although five South American actors survived, Gaffney was killed.

Now, months after the tragedy, Morse is still haunted by it. He also is reluctant to talk about it. But he does respond to one direct question: had it not been for those family concerns back home, would he have been a passenger on that fatal journey?

"Yes, I would have been on that truck," he says quietly and sadly. But the circumstances surrounding that narrow escape have caused him intense emotional pain -- because someone else died instead. "I'm sorry to talk about it this way, but the most important thing is Will Gaffney and his family. I'm not that significant in all of it. I don't really want to talk about it that way -- it makes it kind of cheap. It's more important what they went through and what they lost -- which was huge."

To date, there has been no explanation as to why that truck veered off a road so suddenly. But Morse does confirm that it was always tense travelling on it daily to the shooting location.

"Just before we got there, some guys from Colombia had triggered that road with explosives and killed a whole bunch of people," he says. Meanwhile, the Ecuador authorities were determined that this high-profile Hollywood project would be properly protected. "The security apparatus was unlike anything I have ever seen. We seemed to have practically the entire military in Ecuador helping on it. On every drive on the roads, we'd go by all these checkpoints. They were with us all the time."

But danger was always present, even back in the Ecuadoran capital of Quito where cast and crew were staying at night.

"Someone was kidnapped right outside our hotel. One of our South American actors walked out of his hotel one night and was stabbed in the back and had his lung punctured. When we first got there, they were saying -- don't walk anywhere, especially by yourself." Morse says that he has lived in the toughest areas of Boston and New York and always felt he could walk anywhere -- "but this was the first place I really felt I had to watch myself."

The production could have been shot in a more secure country like Mexico, but director Taylor Hackford, a filmmaker with a reputation for being as driven and obsessive as Titanic director James Cameron, was convinced that a South American shoot under the most difficult of conditions was necessary if the project was to have authenticity.

"Taylor is really tough," Morse confirms now. "But he's really interesting and a good guy." He says Hackford had one fundamental philosophy: "Let's make this as hard as we can." The actor thinks Hackford felt the movie would be dishonest if it didn't go the extra mile and accurately reflect the hardships facing people in that part of the world.

Morse says that because of the rugged mountain locale in which he shot most of his scenes, the situation was far tougher on him than on Meg Ryan, who plays his wife, and Russell Crowe, who plays the kidnap and ransom expert who takes on the job of making a deal with his captors. However, Morse -- who was seen last year as the compassionate prison guard in The Green Mile -- also says he knew what he was getting into from the moment the role was offered to him by Martin Shafer at Castle Rock Entertainment. "I've got a script for you and it's going to be the toughest thing you'll ever do -- are you interested?" Shafer asked him.

"All he needed to do was to say that, and I was interested," says Morse, an actor whose reputation for taking on offbeat, demanding roles dates back to his days on the hit TV medical series, St. Elsewhere, in which he played a tormented young doctor.

But the filming process was rugged.

"You're out there in the mud at 14,000 feet. It's freezing cold. You've got both real rain and fake rain coming down on you. You're bordering on hypothermia.

"That was the Camp Insanity part of it."

There were literally people being carried off on stretchers some days."

Yet, Morse wasn't ill for a single day -- although he did alarm his doctor by losing weight too rapidly in preparation for the later scenes showing the ravages of more than 100 days of imprisonment. "I was losing weight so quickly that the doctor who was monitoring me said -- stop, you'll get ill if you keep going."

Morse's character is loosely based on the real-life experiences of American businessman Tom Hargrove who was kidnapped in Columbia in 1994. "He took a wrong turn one morning and he was a hostage for the next 11 months." He said Hargrove had one especially important piece of advice: Morse's character must not get sentimental about his captors. "His anger was the only thing he had. His identification was taken away. He was humiliated. He had literally nothing with him except a spoon. So the only identity he had was his anger -- so that's kind of what I latched onto as well."

Morse wasn't really aware of the burgeoning romance between co-stars Ryan and Crowe because he was mainly shooting in a different locale. And he's not surprised that the publicity over their relationship is tending to overshadow the movie itself. He thinks such a situation is inevitable because Crowe and Ryan are both big stars. "But I don't think of myself as a star. I think of myself as an actor. I don't want my family to think of me as a star and especially not my children. I'm an actor and lucky to be one."

GRAPHIC: Colour Photo: Ralph Nelson; Taylor Hackford directs Meg Ryan and Russell Crowe. Photo: Ralph Nelson; David Morse is Peter Bowman in Proof of Life.

LOAD-DATE: March 26, 2002



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